Christine is a writer and educator who works from home in a small, New England town. When she’s not working, you can find her cheering in the stands at the local baseball field. She is the mother of four boys who fill her life with love, laugher, and a lot of really gross stuff. She recently started blogging at boyscrytoo.com.
When I was in college, I did an internship with a bunch of 5th graders at a children’s theater company. The director was not a friendly man. Having grown up in a family of girls, I wasn’t surprised to see a few of the girls in tears; but I was quite surprised when several of the boys broke down and started crying. Now that I have four sons of my own, I know this is not unusual; boys feel the same variety and depth of emotions girls do.
If we trust cultural messages about “real men” or the invulnerable personas some of the men and boys around us try to portray, we might mistakenly believe that at some point in their development boys naturally stop crying, getting scared or feeling hurt; but they don’t. These emotional stereotypes hurt our boys in the same way that body image stereotypes hurt our girls.
In her book, Masterminds and Wingmen, Rosalind Wiseman suggests boys have a limited number of options for responding to negative emotions within the parameters of the masculine stereotype:
- Tell themselves the problem doesn’t matter and then walk around feeling weak.
- Keep their emotions bottled up until they explode over something that looks small.
- Lash out at [or bully] someone who isn’t going to put up a fight.
- Use alcohol or drugs [or other addictions] to ignore or dull their feelings.
None of these options lead to improved emotional states and several of them could result in the active harm of others. The masculine stereotype is having catastrophic effects on the psychological well being of the boys who embrace it. Suicide rates are 4x as high for men as for women. By every measure addictions (alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc.) are higher in men than in women. By expecting boys to be independent with little or no need of support, society is pushing them to comfort themselves in unhealthy ways.
The good news is research has shown the most important thing we can give boys to resist the damaging messages they’re surrounded by is a close relationship with their mother. Here are a few things I’ve found help me stay close to my sons:
Play with them.
At some point, my boys all start shrugging off my snuggles, but that doesn’t mean they no longer want my affection. Every once in a while, I can still sneak in a hug, kiss or back rub, but one of the best ways I’ve found to continue showing affection is to play with them: tickle, tag and playful punches. My boys may get big and strong, but they still appreciate regular loving touches from their Mama even if the form of those touches changes shape a little.
Show interest in what matters to them.
So much of what my boys want to talk about when they’re young is B-O-R-I-N-G. I couldn’t care less about how they did on the last round of their video game, I really couldn’t. But to them, conquering that level might be the biggest challenge currently going on in their life. If I’m not interested in what matters to them when they’re young, why would they ever believe I’m interested in what matters to them when they’re older? To them, it’s all important.
Be ready when they want to talk.
Although conventional wisdom says otherwise, in my experience, boys talk A LOT. But, they don’t always want to answer my questions or talk immediately after school. Instead they most often want to talk when I’m ready to fall asleep, or when I’m in the middle of a good book. If I can set my plans aside when they’re ready, they will usually tell me everything I want to know, and more.
Trust their feelings.
Most mothers have noticed how babies can sense caregivers’ feelings. We also know children understand stereotypes and cultural expectations by the age of 5. Boys are much more emotionally observant than we give them credit for. When one of my boys tells me someone intentionally hurt him, I’ve found he feels better when I trust him and say, “that really stinks,” rather than, “I’m sure they didn’t mean to” or “You’re okay.” The first response validates and prompts him to share more while the other responses feels like I’m taking the other person’s side and prompt him to shut down.
Emotionally our boys want the same things our girls want: they want to be known, loved, understood and respected. If we can identify and change some of our mistaken assumptions, we can provide safer places for them to seek love and support so they can develop the emotional strength to withstand the damaging messages they’re surrounded by everyday.
How do you stay close to your sons?